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Full text of "W. S. Churchill '' Consistency In Politics'' [ 1932]"

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N o one has written more boldly on this subject than 

‘Why should you keep your head over your shoul¬ 
der? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you 
contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public 
place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?.. 

‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, 
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines . . . 

‘Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow 
speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it 
contradict everything you said to-day.’ 

These are considerable assertions, and they may well stimu¬ 
late thought upon this well-worn topic. A distinction should 
be drawn at the outset between two kinds of political incon¬ 
sistency. First, a Statesman in contact with the moving current 
of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and 
steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side 
and now on the other. His arguments in each case when con¬ 
trasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, 
but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his 
object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, 
his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his meth¬ 
ods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this incon¬ 
sistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. 
The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing 
circumstances is to change with them while preserving the 
same dominating purpose. Lord Halifax on being derided as 
a trimmer made the celebrated reply: ‘I trim as the temperate 
zone trims between the climate in which men are roasted and 
the climate in which they are frozen.’ 



No greater example in this field can be found than Burke. 
His Thoughts on the Present Discontents, his writings and 
speeches on the conciliation of America, form the main and 
lasting armoury of Liberal opinion throughout the English- 
speaking world. His Letters on a Regicide Peace, and Reflec¬ 
tions on the French Revolution, will continue to furnish Con¬ 
servatives for all time with the most formidable array of op¬ 
posing weapons. On the one hand he is revealed as a foremost 
apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion 
of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied 
to this great life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily 
discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the 
imm ense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked 
from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely 
contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, 
whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch 
and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, 
mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it tow¬ 
ered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and 
wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the 
Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same 
man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society 
and Government, and defending them from assaults, now 
from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger 
approached the same man from different directions and in 
different forms, and the same man turned to face it with in¬ 
comparable weapons, drawn from the same armoury, used 
in a different quarter, but for the same purpose. 

It is inevitable that frequent changes should take place in 
the region of action. A policy is pursued up to a certain point; 
it becomes evident at last that it can be carried no further. 
New facts arise which clearly render it obsolete; new difficul¬ 
ties, which make it impracticable. A new and possibly the op¬ 
posite solution presents itself with overwhelming force. To 
abandon the old policy is often necessarily to adopt the new. 
It sometimes happens that the same men, the same Govern¬ 
ment, the same Party have to execute this volte face. It may 




be their duty to do so because it is the sole manner of dis¬ 
charging their responsibilities, or because they are the only 
combination strong enough to do what is needed in the new 
circumstances. In such a case the inconsistency is not merely 
verbal, but actual, and ought to be boldly avowed. In place 
of arguments for coercion, there must be arguments for con¬ 
ciliation; and these must come from the same lips as the 
former. But all this may be capable of reasonable and honour¬ 
able explanation. Statesmen may say bluntly, ‘We have failed 
to coerce; we have now to conciliate,’ or alternatively, ‘We 
have failed to conciliate; we have now to coerce.’ 

Ireland with its mysterious and sinister influence has been 
responsible for many changes of this kind in British politics. 
We see Mr. Gladstone in 1886 after five years of coercion, 
after the fiercest denunciation of Irish Nationalists ‘marching 
through rapine to the disintegration of the Empire,’ turn in a 
month to those policies of reconciliation to which the rest of 
his life was devoted. Mr. Gladstone in his majestic and saintly 
manner gave many comforting and convincing reasons for 
his change, and there is no doubt that his whole nature was 
uplifted and inspired by his new departure. But behind all the 
eloquence and high-sounding declamation there was a very 
practical reason for his change, which in private at any rate 
he did not conceal. 

During the interval between the fall of his Government in 
1885 and his resumption of power in 1886, a Conservative 
Government held office with the support of the Irish vote, and 
the people—wrongly no doubt but sincerely—thought the 
Conservatives were themselves meditating a solution of the 
Irish problem on Home Rule lines. Confronted with this sup¬ 
posed fact he felt it impossible for the Liberal Party to march 
further along the path of coercion and a denial of Irish claims. 
But Mr. Gladstone was wrong in his judgment of the impen¬ 
ding Conservative action. The Conservative Party would 
never at that stage have been capable of a Home Rule policy. 
They might have coquetted with the Irish vote as a manoeuvre 
in their fierce political battle with the Liberals; but any deci- 



ded advance towards Home Rule would have split them from 
end to end, dethroned their leaders in such a course, and de¬ 
stroyed the power of the Party as a governing instrument. Mr. 
Gladstone gave to his opponents through this miscalculation 
what was virtually a twenty years’ reign of power. Neverthe¬ 
less the judgment of history will probably declare that Mr. 
Gladstone was right both in his resistance to Home Rule up 
to a certain point and in his espousal of it thereafter. Certainly 
the change which he made upon this question in 1886, for 
which he was so much condemned, was in every way a lesser 
change than that which was made by the whole Conserva¬ 
tive Party on this same question thirty-five years later in 1921. 

Apart from action in the march of events, there is an in¬ 
consistency arising from a change o^nood or heart. t Le cceur 
a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas' Few men avoid such 
changes in their lives, and few public men have been able to 
conceal them. Usually youth is for freedom and reform, ma¬ 
turity for judicious compromise, and old age for stability and 
repose. The normal progression is from Left to Right, and 
often from extreme Left to extreme Right. Mr. Gladstone’s 
progress was by a striking exception in the opposite direction. 
In the immense period covered by his life he moved steadily 
and irresistibly from being ‘the rising hope of stem unben¬ 
ding Tories’ to become the greatest Liberal statesman of the 
nineteenth century. Enormous was the change of mood which 
this august transition represented. From the young Member 
of Parliament whose speech against the abolition of slavery 
attracted the attention of the House of Commons in 1833, 
from the famous Minister who supported the Confederate 
States against the North in the sixties, to the fiery orator who 
pleaded the cause of Bulgarian independence in the eighties, 
and the veteran Premier, the last scraps of whose matchless 
strength were freely offered in the nineties to the cause of Irish 
self-government—it was a transit almost astronomical in its 

It were a thankless theme to examine how far ambition to 
lead played its unconscious but unceasing part in such an 



evolution. Ideas acquire a momentum of their own. The 
stimulus of a vast concentration of public support is almost 
irresistible in its potency. The resentments engendered by the 
warfare of opponents, the practical responsibilities of a Party 
Leader—all take a hand. And in the main great numbers are 
at least an explanation for great changes. ‘I have always 
marched,’ said Napoleon, ‘with the opinion of four or five 
millions of men.’ To which, without risking the reproach of 
cynicism, we may add two other sayings: ‘In a democratic 
country possessing representative institutions it is occasion¬ 
ally necessary to defer to the opinions of other people’; and, 
T am their leader; I must follow them.’ The integrity of Mr. 
Gladstone’s career is redeemed by the fact that these two last 
considerations played a far smaller part in his life than in 
those of many lesser public men whose consistency has never 
been impugned. 

It is evident that a political leader responsible for the direc¬ 
tion of affairs must, even if unchanging in heart or objective, 
give his counsel now on the one side and now on the other of 
many public issues. Take for instance the strength and ex¬ 
pense of the armed forces of a country in any particular 
period. This depends upon no absolute or natural law. It re¬ 
lates simply to the circumstances of the time and to the view 
that a man may hold of the probability of dangers, actual or 
potential, which threaten his country. Would there, for in¬ 
stance, be any inconsistency in a British Minister urging the 
most extreme and rapid naval preparations in the years pre¬ 
ceding the outbreak of the Great War with Germany, and 
advocating a modest establishment and strict retrenchment 
in the years following the destruction of the German naval 
power? He might think that the danger had passed and had 
carried away with it the need for intense preparation. He 
might believe that a long period of peace would follow the 
exhaustion of the World War, and that financial and economic 
recovery were more necessary to the country than continuous 
armed strength. He might think that the Air was taking the 
place of the Sea in military matters. And he might be right 



and truly consistent both in the former and in the latter ad¬ 
vocacy. But it would be easy to show a wide discrepancy be¬ 
tween the sets of arguments in the two periods. Questions of 
this kind do not depend upon the intrinsic logic of the reason¬ 
ing used on the one hand or the other, but on taking a just 
view of the governing facts of different periods. Such changes 
must, however, be considered in each particular case with re¬ 
gard to the personal situation of the individual. If it can be 
shown that he swims with the current in both cases, his titles 
to a true consistency must be more studiously examined than 
if he swims against it. 

A more searching scrutiny should also be applied to 
changes of view in relation not to events but to systems of 
thought and doctrine. In modem British politics no greater 
contrast can be found than in comparing the Free Trade 
speeches of the late Mr. Joseph Chamberlain as President of 
the Board of Trade in the early eighties, with the Protectionist 
speeches which he delivered during the Tariff campaign at the 
beginning of the nineteenth century. Here we are dealing not 
with the turbulent flow of events, but with precise methods of 
thought. Those who read Mr. Chamberlain’s Free Trade 
speeches will find that almost every economic argument which 
he used in 1904 was foreseen and countered by him in 1884. 
Yet the sincerity of his later views was generally accepted by 
friends and opponents alike. And after all, once he had come 
to think differently on economic subjects, was it not better that 
he should unhesitatingly give his country the benefit of his 
altered convictions? Still, it must be observed that the basis 
of reasoning had changed very little in the twenty years’ inter¬ 
val, that the problem was mainly an abstract one in its charac¬ 
ter, and that it was substantially the same problem. There 
need be no impeachment of honesty of purpose or of a zeal¬ 
ous and unceasing care for the public interest. But there is 
clearly in this case a contradiction of argument in regard to 
the same theory which amounts to self-stultification. 

We may illustrate this distinction further. Mr. Chamber- 
lain argued in 1884 that a tax on imports was paid by the 



home consumer, and in 1904 that it was paid, very largely at 
any rate, by the foreigner. We cannot help feeling that the 
reasoning processes underlying these two conclusions are 
fundamentally incompatible, and it is hard to understand how 
a man who once saw the one process so clearly should subse¬ 
quently have visualized and accepted the opposite process 
with equal vehemence and precision. It would have been bet¬ 
ter, tactically at any rate, for Mr. Chamberlain to have relin¬ 
quished the abstract argument altogether and to have relied 
exclusively in his advocacy upon the facts—the world facts— 
which were really his reasons, the importance of consolidating 
the British Empire by means of a Zollverein, and the necessity 
of rallying support for that policy among the British industrial 
interests and the Conservative working classes; for these con¬ 
siderations, in his view, over-ruled—whether or not they contra¬ 
dicted—the validity of his purely economic conviction. 

A Statesman should always try to do what he believes is 
best in the long view for his country, and he should not be 
dissuaded from so acting by having to divorce himself from 
a great body of doctrine to which he formerly sincerely 
adhered. Those, however, who are forced to these gloomy 
choices must regard their situation in this respect as unlucky. 
The great Sir Robert Peel must certainly be looked on as 
falling within the sweep of this shadow. Of him Lord John 
Russell sourly observed: 

*He has twice changed his opinion on the greatest political ques¬ 
tion of his day. Once when the Protestant Church was to be 
defended and the Protestant Constitution rescued from the attacks 
of the Roman Catholics, which it was said would ruin it, the Right 
Honourable Gentleman undertook to lead the defence. Again, the 
Com Laws were powerfully attacked in this House and out of it. 
He took the lead of his Party to resist a change and to defend Pro¬ 
tection. I think, on both occasions, he has come to a wise conclu¬ 
sion, and to a decision most beneficial to his country; first, when 
he repealed the Roman Catholic disabilities, and, secondly, when 
he abolished Protection. But that those who followed him—men 
that had committed themselves to these questions, on the faith of 



his political wisdom, on the faith of his sagacity, led by the great 
eloquence and ability he displayed in debate—that when they 
found he had changed his opinions and proposed measures dif¬ 
ferent from those on the faith of which they had followed him— 
that they should exhibit warmth and resentment was not only 
natural, but I should have been surprised if they had not displayed 

This was a hard, yet not unjust, commentary upon the car¬ 
eer of one of the most eminent and one of the noblest of our 
public men; for here not merely a change of view is in ques¬ 
tion, but the workaday good faith of a leader towards those 
who had depended upon his guidance and had not shared in 
his conversion. 

A change of Party is usually considered a much more seri¬ 
ous breach of consistency than a change of view. In fact as 
long as a man works with a Party he will rarely find himself 
accused of inconsistency, no matter how widely his opinions 
at one time on any subject can be shown to have altered. Yet 
Parties are subject to changes and inconsistencies not less 
glaring than those of individuals. How should it be otherwise 
in the fierce swirl of Parliamentary conflict and Electoral for¬ 
tune? Change with a Party, however inconsistent, is at least 
defended by the power of numbers. To remain constant when 
a Party changes is to excite invidious challenge. Moreover, a 
separation from Party affects all manner of personal relations 
and sunders old comradeship. Still, a sincere conviction, in 
harmony with the needs of the time and upon a great issue, 
will be found to override all other factors; and it is right and 
in the public interest that it should. Politics is a generous pro¬ 
fession. The motives and characters of public men, though 
constantly criticized, are in the end broadly and fairly judged. 
But, anyhow, where is Consistency to-day? The greatest Con¬ 
servative majority any modem Parliament has seen is led by 
the creator of the Socialist party, and dutifully cheers the very 
Statesman who a few years ago was one of the leaders of a 
General Strike which he only last year tried to make again 
legal. A life-long Free Trader at the Board of Trade has 



framed and passed amid the loudest plaudits a whole-hearted 
Protectionist Tariff. The Government which only yesterday 
took office to keep the £ sterling from falling, is now sup¬ 
ported for its exertions to keep it from rising. These astonish¬ 
ing tergiversations could be multiplied: but they suffice. Let 
us quote the charitable lines of Crabbe, in the hopes of a 
similar measure of indulgence: 

‘Minutely trace man’s life; year after year. 

Through all his days let all his deeds appear. 

And then, though some may in that life be strange. 

Yet there appears no vast nor sudden change; 

The links that bind those various deeds are seen. 

And no mysterious void is left between.’